Q: #553. How did people shave in the Bible?
A: The Bible mentions shaving 25 times. Here are a few key things the Bible says about shaving:
Amongst the Israelites, shaving was not common. It appears that neither heads, nor faces, nor any other parts of their body were shaved, except in special circumstances. Israelite men took pride in their beards, and under Mosaic law, Israelite priests were actually forbidden to shave (or even “trim the corners”) their beards (Lev 21:5). Only during times of mourning or sorrow (Job 1:20)(Jer 41:5)(Jer 48:37), or for cleansing rituals (Lev 14:8-9)(Num 8:7), would Israelite men shave themselves (priests were not allowed to do so). In addition, if a Nazirite vow had been broken, a man was required to shave (Numbers Ch. 6). To have one’s beard shaved, or cut off was actually a disgrace (2 Sam 10:4-5)(1 Chr 19:4-5).
On the other hand, it appears that other cultures (i.e. the Egyptians, the Romans) did shave regularly. In these cultures, men were generally clean shaven, and their heads (including male children) were usually shaved too. In fact, it is said that they often went so far as to shave their whole bodies (including…. ummm, you know…) ! Women would also shave everything, except their heads.
Being clean shaven in Bible times was often associated with wealth and high status, primarily because of the time it took to shave, plus the cost associated with it. For one, there were no “mirrors” in Bible times. Therefore, in order to see oneself while shaving required looking at one’s reflection in highly polished silver, or something similar. This was not easy to do, therefore, shaving was often done by servants (a trusted one for obvious reasons), or apparently there were “barbers” (Ezek 5:1).
***Note: Since God often required His people to be separate from other cultures, and their traditions, this may have been why God discouraged shaving amongst the Israelites.
So, this is where we get to our question, “How did people shave in the Bible?” It turns out that there were many ways to do this.
From what I can tell, some of the first shaving was done primarily using what is called “obsidian.” Obsidian is a “naturally occurring volcanic glass formed as an extrusive igneous rock” (Wikipedia). Obsidian would be cut into sharp pieces, and then used to scrape hair off of the face. (As I write this, you can find video of a man who cuts pieces off of a block of obsidian, and then shaves off his beard with them.) In addition, it has been found that sea shells, pumice, sharpened rocks, flint, shark’s teeth, and even hot coals (ouch) were used.
As metals were found, and became common, these became the primary material used to shave. I don’t know “for sure” if this order is correct, but I have read that these metals went from copper, to bronze, to iron, to steel, with each one being a better material for shaving than the previous one. After a metal blade was made, it would then be attached to some kind of a handle, which was generally made of rock, wood, bone, more metal, or if very wealthy, ivory.
***Note: If you run an online search, you can find a number of photos showing some of these ancient razors that archaeologists have found.
Today, we take razors for granted, but in Bible times, a good razor was certainly not taken for granted.
***Trivia note: Joseph is the first man in the Bible to be recorded as shaving (Gen 41:14).